SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's military needs to improve its missile defense and cyber capabilities to better defend against persistent threats from Pyongyang, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea said Tuesday.
Gen. James Thurman, who will leave his command Wednesday and retire, offered a sobering assessment of North Korea's continued drive to become a nuclear power and expressed disappointment in its young leader, Kim Jong Un.
Thurman told reporters he is most worried about the South's abilities to face asymmetric threats from the North, including cyber attacks and long-range ballistic missiles and artillery.
South Korea is scheduled to take over wartime control of its own forces, which would defend the country in the event of an attack by North Korea, by the end of 2015. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this week that U.S. and South Korean officials are discussing a possible extension of the 2015 deadline, but no decision is expected soon. The initial target date was in 2012 before it was pushed back to 2015.
On Tuesday, Thurman and Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, both said they were initially a bit optimistic about Kim's move to power, hoping he would tone down the provocative behavior. But they said they've been disappointed, because he instead continued North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.
Other senior U.S. military officials echoed those views, saying the U.S. is still trying to gain better intelligence on Kim's intent and his military and technological advancements. North Korea's closed society, they said, has made it difficult to get people into the country and gain access to Kim's inner circle. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the assessment.
Thurman said North Korea's behavior over the past year, including an underground nuclear test, has caused him a great deal of worry. He said the U.S. is working with South Korea to improve its abilities to meet the North's growing asymmetric threats, including the long-range artillery that Pyongyang has arrayed near the border.
He said the U.S. is also working with South Korea to improve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs, its cyber security capabilities and its ability to coordinate seamlessly with U.S. forces, including air and maritime.
U.S. control of South Korea's wartime forces is a holdover from the Korean War, and America has been trying for years to build its capabilities. But it has proved difficult to wean the South off its dependence on the U.S. military, particularly as the threat from North Korea has escalated.
Earlier this year, Pyongyang conducted another nuclear test in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. The detonation at a remote underground site was seen as a key step toward the North's goal of building a bomb small enough to fit on a long-range missile capable of striking the U.S.
Last month, a U.S. research institute said recent satellite images appeared to show that North Korea was restarting its plutonium reactor at the Nyongbyon nuclear facility. That facility was closed in 2007 under the terms of a six-nation disarmament agreement.
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